Russia and America: Getting Acquainted
In the early decades following the War of Independence with Great Britain, Americans felt drawn to Russia for numerous reasons. Although Russia was expanding East and the United States was expanding to the West, the two countries established a friendship not across the Pacific Ocean, but rather across "Old Europe." The leaders of the young American Republic appreciated Russian assistance in the war against the British and both nations gained from a growing trade relationship in the early 1800s. In the 1830s and 1840s, ships from New England poured Cuban sugar into Russian ports on the Baltic Sea, returning with loads of Russian rope, tackle, cotton canvas for sails, and native iron.
Direct information about each others societies was limited, however, and the number of travelers from either country was very small. As noted in last months "Reflections," the formal opening of diplomatic missions in Washington and St. Petersburg took place in 1808-9, and the popular attitude of each nation toward the other was positive. Mutual cooperation in opposition to the British and French helped solidify the early friendship, enhanced by a growing sense that both nations were the newly-emerging world powers, as Great Britain and France -- the worn-out powers of "Old Europe" -- declined.
Learning About Each Other Through Literature
Russian publishers, restrained from political commentaries by ardent censors, instead emphasized American literature and poetry, and educated Russians began to develop an extensive familiarity with the world of American writers. Washington Irving was the first American author to win a substantial Russian following; his Rip Van Winkle was a standard discussion item in intellectual circles. James Fenimore Coopers books, especially The Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer, and The Pathfinder, gained a wide readership in the Russian capital and among nobility in the provinces. The same was true of the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the works of Edgar Allen Poe.
Russian writers rarely met with their American counterparts and had even less opportunity than American authors to visit the far-away lands of the New World. This was one reason why Russian literature was scarcely known in the United States. Rarely were a Russians works translated into English, and when they were (usually by the British), copies were difficult to find. By the middle of the 19th century, direct contacts between the two countries had increased in number and the Russians, in particular, became zealous in their efforts to learn more about their new commercial and political ally, the United States.
Russians had another distinct advantage during the mid-1800s: there were many more educated Russians well versed in English than there were Americans literate in Russian. Russian nobility developed a strong taste for reading American literature in its original language, not in translation.
By the 1860s, while Cooper, Irving and Poe remained the favorite American authors of educated Russians, new names had been added to the list, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Undoubtedly, the most popular American book in Russia by the 1860s was Harriet Beecher Stowes Uncle Toms Cabin -- a book not easy to publish in Russia for fear of peasant revolts!
"Close Friends in Separate Spheres"
As historian Norman Saul noted, these laudatory words represented the culmination of the previous one hundred years, a century during which America and Russia were "close friends in separate spheres."
NOTE: These "Reflections" were based on Norman E. Sauls book Distant Friends: The United States and Russia, 1763-1867 (University of Kansas Press, 1991).
Dr. John A. Bernbaum